July 5th, 2006. The date means nothing in particular to us, the heirs of courageous wise men. But to the 56 signers of the Declaration of Independence, and the 13 colonies they represented, the day after the Fourth of July meant newly-found freedom, and freedom was the foundation for real living, something these men and women were willing to die for.
Today, the word "freedom" almost sounds political President George W. Bush uses it every chance he gets and America used to clap, all of us. Now, some look around and then down. We can’t help but wonder why the president’s political opponents lower their glance, soften their voice, or stutter when they use the word:
"What does freedom really mean?"
"Is it for everyone?"
"Perhaps it’s not what it’s cracked up to be."
In such an atmosphere, the temptation to doubt is strong; perhaps freedom itself is cliché and passé.
Political debate is good for America. As a nation, we would have great motive for concern if Democrats were not checking the administration’s actions and motives and working feverishly to take back the House, the Senate, and Pennsylvania Avenue. It’s part of a two-party, democratic system that works better than any other in the world today.
What is not good for this nation, however, is for any party or any citizen to forget what freedom is, and why it’s worth dying for.
230 years is not so long ago. It still surprises me, though, that Thomas Jefferson foresaw our present danger. In at once exalted and accessible language, he summarized the political philosophy that drove reverent subjects of King George III to the unthinkable—separation from the crown.
Read his words:
"When in the course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature's God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation."
We should thank Jefferson for this "decent respect," as he calls it, and we can learn from it. He recognizes the seriousness of separation, and wants to make sure we know precisely why, after ten years of bartering, the colonists were justified in the taking up of arms against the very king whose coronation they had celebrated just fifteen years prior.
The motives had to do with the nature of human rights and where they come from.
"We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness."
The Declaration’s subsequent list of grievances only had force within the context of this premise. The signers knew their allegiance to the King was subject to another allegiance, that of their conscience. In its dictates they perceived an obligation to defend human rights against despotism—as Jefferson himself referred to the heavy hand of the crown.
Jefferson leaves little room for doubt from where the founding fathers mustered their courage. Their collective conscience to do the right thing was not an island of personal, relativistic belief. Their pursuit of freedom from despotism was not a whimsical craving. It was, rather, linked to the self-evident truth that the Creator endows all people, all of whom are equal, with unalienable rights.
The signers of our Declaration of Independence acted with certainty because their beliefs were founded on principles bigger than themselves. They knew freedom was not a geographical privilege. It proceeded from a common human nature endowed by the Creator with dignity, rights, and responsibilities.
Lest we think all the godly language in the Declaration’s preamble was hyperbole, we need only read on. These men were aware of an ultimate Judge:
"We, therefore, the Representatives of the United States of America, in General Congress, Assembled, appealing to the Supreme Judge of the world for the rectitude of our intentions, do, in the Name, and by Authority of the good People of these Colonies, solemnly publish and declare, That these United Colonies are, and of Right ought to be Free and Independent States."
Today, July 5th of 2006, we thank these wise men for a heritage of freedom. In particular, we are indebted to them for taking the time to think deeply and base their intuitions on solid principles. Because they did, we have inherited a political philosophy capable of withstanding fierce winds of debate and even a constant changing of the partisan guard.
Our only danger is the perpetual one of forgetting what words mean.
God bless, Father Jonathan
P.S. Today’s posting will be my only one for this holiday week. Next week we’ll be back on our ordinary summer schedule of Mondays and Thursdays. As always, I look forward to your comments on today’s posting, “the 5th of July."
Write to Father Jonathan at email@example.com.